I caught up with Mark Strickson (the Fifth Doctor’s companion, Turlough) in his New Zealand home to look back on his time on Who and ask him how he decided to emigrate.
EL: First things first: did you enjoy working on Doctor Who?
MS: Yes, I did enjoy it for various reasons. For one, I was a young actor at the time, and regular money is always good…that was one reason. If you have regular money coming in, you’re a lot less stressed, and acting is a precarious profession. But I enjoyed the work as well; it was pretty hard work, but I enjoyed it because the people I was working with on it – Peter and Janet, and Nicola in the end – they were all lovely. It’s like any other job in that way: if the people are nice to you, it makes life a lot easier. You look forward to going to work and seeing them. And John Nathan-Turner and I had a very good relationship as well, so it was easy. I never had any problems from the day I started Doctor Who to the day I finished it – it was all very smooth.
EL: Have you read the book that’s come out regarding JNT?
MS: No, I haven’t read it…but I know what it says. I’ve read about it in the press.
EL: And did any of that ring true with you?
MS: Well, all I can say is that the John I knew was a very nice person, and he was always very respectful of me and very nice to me. That was my personal experience of John, that’s all I can say.
EL: I’m told he originally wanted Turlough to be a bit of a thuggish skinhead. Would that have been a different portrayal?
MS: No, I don’t think so…he didn’t want a skinhead, he wanted me to have all my hair cut off, he wanted Turlough to be bald. I said if you really want that, you can have it, but you’ll have to pay me for loss of earnings for at least three months after I finish the contract. Seeing as at the time Doctor Who was being made on a shoestring, that didn’t work, so he decided to cut my hair really short and die it metallic red.
EL: Is it true that was because you clashed with Peter?
MS: Yeah, that’s right. The natural colour of my hair is quite blonde, so if I wore it longish, which I tended to do, it did look quite like Peter’s. In long shot it would have been quite confusing if you had two characters who looked even vaguely the same. Also in drama it’s much better if you have very distinct characters, and the look is part of that.
EL: And did you get on with all the other cast members – Janet and Sarah and Nicola?
MS: Oh yes, we still get on. We do the Big Finish things together, and we e-mail each other if we’ve got any news – usually about health these days. We’re coming to that part of our lives…we do keep in touch.
EL: You left in 1984. Was that your own decision or were you written out?
MS: Yes, that was my own decision. I felt the character was…well, it was very, very difficult to write for Turlough, because he is such a strong character. And the Doctor, after all, is the lead in Doctor Who, so what do you do with Turlough? He’d had a good run and some strong stories, and I didn’t want to weaken the character by having him just basically knock around in the TARDIS.
EL: Did you regret leaving?
MS: Well…life’s too short, really, isn’t it? You just move on and try to get the next thing going. I did miss it…I missed the people and the BBC. You suddenly find, as an actor, that you’re completely on your own, and that’s hard.
EL: Did you work steadily after you left or was there a period of down time?
MS: I was very lucky, I did work steadily. I mean, I made a reasonable living until I left England at the age of twenty-nine.
EL: Were you sad to see TV Centre go?
MS: When I come to London and I see it sitting there doing nothing, I do feel very sad, yes. I’m not sure it’s a great building to work in unless you’re an actor, but it becomes part of your life. It’s like seeing a great factory close down.
EL: It’s all moved up North now, of course.
MS: It’s a huge part of the BBC that they’ve moved to Media City in Manchester now. I’m told that’s a very nice place to work – I’ve been there once and it did look great.
EL: Manchester seems to be the place to be at the moment. Now they’ve closed all the actual factories and put TV studios in instead.
MS: Well, we have the same problem here…it’s so sad that TV Centre closed and it’s sad when factories close, but the world is changing and it’s the TV studios and the computer offices that are making the products now. It’s just that business is changing. We’re not a manufacturing country any more, neither England nor New Zealand, and people of the older generation really miss that.
EL: So after Doctor Who you were a jobbing actor for a while. What made you decide to go into wildlife producing?
MS: Well, Julie – my wife at the time – and I got a bit bored. We got a bit bored and fed up of the English weather, and we decided to go somewhere hot. Everybody knows that Australia’s hot, and it does have beautiful weather, so we decided to go there. We decided we’d change our lives completely and do degrees. So I did a degree in zoology and Julie did one in anthropology.
EL: That must have been a hard decision to make, leaving your family and moving abroad.
MS: Oh, it was. I remember moving into Sidney and thinking “what on Earth have we done?” I mean, you saw this beautiful blue seas underneath you, and Sidney’s a beautiful city, but our first thought was “what the hell are you doing moving here?” But I was very lucky, because once we’d eventually started our degrees I got a job teaching drama studies as well as doing my degree, and that kept the wolf from the door.
EL: Did your mother try to stop you leaving?
MS: My mum said later that she’s cried only twice in her life: once when her mother died and once when I emigrated to Australia. In those days you couldn’t go back so easily, it was very, very expensive; it’s comparatively much cheaper now. When I first moved I didn’t see my family for four or five years, and e-mail had only just started so my parents didn’t have that. We wrote letters. I wrote a letter every week, and I’ve still got all the letters I got in those years.
EL: I think we met in the mid-nineties, would that be…?
MS: Yes, that was the first time I came back from Australia. Must be twenty years ago – I’ve been making documentaries for twenty years.
EL: Are you making one at the moment?
MS: I’ve just been in the Maldives making one about China’s two best surfers, filming them surfing and also diving. It’s for Chinese television, made by a company called Scuba Zoo. That was pretty amazing, I got to snorkel with huge manta rays, which was pretty cool.
EL: Do you have no fear? Over the years you’ve done all these things…what scares you? Something must.
MS: Sharks scare me. Only in a good way, because with sharks and crocodiles you don’t get a second chance. You often don’t even see them before they attack, and then it’s all over, you know? They’re the most frightening animals, sharks and crocodiles, because you can’t predict them either – most of the time sharks are perfectly benign and harmless, but occasionally they’re not, as we know. It’s knowing the signs. I dive, I love being in the water, but diving I feel like we’re not supposed to be there, it’s not our world. That always freaks me a bit.
EL: You have been in situations where you’ve nearly lost your life a few times when filming crocodiles and such.
MS: I have, yes. But I’ve recently been in New York and there was a double homicide outside my hotel the night before I checked in, so you never know. You go round trying to be as sensible as you can, but you’ve always got to be careful. One of the golden rules about working in dangerous countries is – well, the humans are more dangerous than the animals. By far. So the golden rules are: never look as if you’ve got much money, never carry your wallet, never wear a ring or a watch and just keep a low profile. And don’t dress in khaki because you look like you’re in the army.
EL: The same rules apply in Birkenhead.
MS: I’ve been mugged once in my life. It’s probably the most dangerous thing that’s ever happened to me, and it happened in San Francisco. Not in Sierra Leone after the war, or South Africa where everywhere you go people have a gun on their back. You can never tell.
EL: That must have been frightening.
MS: It was terrifying. So forget the animals, it’s the people you’ve got to watch out for.
EL: Speaking of scary, have you seen any of the new Doctor Who?
MS: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t. It has been on in New Zealand, but I’ve been really busy recently with some corporate work, I’ve been in and out of the country a lot. As ever, which I’m very lucky to say. Documentaries are becoming an increasingly difficult business to earn a living out of, so I’m pretty blessed to be doing that. I think the next project will be about pygmy elephants in Borneo.
EL: Is that soon? Are you flying out in the near future?
MS: No, but we’ve got the money on the table, which is usually the tricky bit. I’m working on that at the moment but it’s just a case of organising it.
EL: And has your son seen his dad in Doctor Who yet? Have you shown him any of it?
MS: Tom has seen me on TV in Doctor Who – when I was away, for some reason there was an old episode from my Doctor Who days on New Zealand television. He watched it for about ten minutes and then said “Can we change the channel now?” He’s only just six, he’s a bit young yet.
EL: Well, he knew to change the channel. I take it he’s not seen any of the new series yet?
MS: No, I think he’s a bit young yet, as I say. I will show him Doctor Who one day. He knows I was an actor. We were visiting a steam train once and a guy came up and said “Excuse me, this may be a silly question, but are you Mark Strickson from Doctor Who?” I said yes, and he asked for a photo with me. I asked Tom if he wanted to be in the photo with us and he said “No THANK YOU, dad!” So he gets it.
EL: Are you all staying in New Zealand for Christmas or are you coming back here?
MS: We’re staying here and having a pretty quiet Christmas. Then we’re going off in our little caravan for a week. There’s a place here by the coast where they have a little carnival that’s great for kids. Though the way the weather is here at the moment I don’t think it’ll seem very different to England.
EL: Oh, I know. It’s cold here too.
MS: Well yes, but I’m on the other side of the world! I’m supposed to be unwrapping presents on a blazing hot beach, eating prawns and getting eaten by sharks.